Seeking the Mysterious Origin of Valentine's Day – at El Cerrito Library

We all know Valentine's Day falls on Feb. 14 and that its American variation involves paper Valentines, hearts, flowers, candy and romance. But why do we celebrate it? Patch went to the El Cerrito Library to find out.

If romance is enhanced by a touch of mystery, it's probably fitting that the origin of the holiday devoted to romance, Valentine's Day, is veiled by the mists of history.

Why the cards, candy, flowers, hearts and romance? The origin theories seem as numerous as Republicans running for President.

There's the story about a saint named Valentine, executed Feb. 14 after being imprisoned by some mean Romans. While in jail, he received affectionate notes through the bars of this cell.

Or, as others say, it was an adaptation of the Roman Lupercalia holiday, in which rites intended to ward off wolves also somehow involved young men lashing young women with leather thongs.

Or, it began as a celebration of the day when birds chose their mates.

Or, it was something else.

Hoping to discover how we got the set of customs observed on Valentine's Day, Patch went to the El Cerrito Library.

"Different authorities believe Valentine's Day began in various ways," says the World Book encyclopedia. Below are the main theories found in reference works  available in print at the library.

St. Valentine

We know that Feb. 14 is a feast day dedicated to a St. Valentine by the Roman Catholic Church, but beyond that we venture into murky history. It's not entirely clear how many St. Valentines existed or what exactly happened to them.

The Dictionary of Catholic Biograhpy lists nine saints named Valentine in the early church history. An account in The Folklore of American Holidays says Valentine's Day is "a day in honor of two Christian martyrs of the same name who were persecuted under the Roman Emperor Claudius II (A.D. 214-270) and who were buried on the Flaminiian Way on the same day."

The World Book notes there were "at least two saints named Valentine." According to one story, one of them was imprisoned by the Romans for refusing to worship their gods. Children who missed him tossed loving notes through his cell window.

A story cited in The Folklore of American Holidays says Emperor Claudius II banned soldiers from getting married because he believed single men made better soldiers. He beheaded a priest named Valentine on Feb. 14 for secretly performing marriages for soldiers. Another account in the same volume says Valentine fell in love with the jailer's daughter and on the day of his execution, Feb. 14, he wrote a note to her signed, "Your Valentine."

Many of the stories put the execution of St. Valentine in or about 279 A.D. In the year 496, Pope Gelasius I named Feb. 14 St. Valentine's Day.


We know that on Feb. 15, the Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a festival in honor of the god Lupercus, who was called upon to keep away the many wolves that menaced the Roman countryside at that time.

Accounts cited in The Folklore of American Holidays say the festival included boys drawing the names of girls at random from a box, with the couples then going off for whatever young couples did during early springtime Roman revels.

The World Book says the rites also included young men striking people with strips of animal hide. "Women took the blows because they thought that the whipping made them more fertile," the encyclopedia says. 

"As Rome became more Christian," says The Folklore of American Holidays, "the priests moved the spring holiday from the 15th of February to the 14th – Valentine's Day."

Bird mating day

Other sources say Valentine's Day traditions can be traced to the day when birds were believed to pair up.

The book, Anniversaries and Holidays, says, "The custom of exchanging Valentines stems from a medieval belief that birds begin to pair on this day."

The first records in English of Valentine's Day also say that birds chose their mates on Feb. 14, according to the World Book. The encyclopedia cites poet Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 1300s in The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on St. Valentine's Day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.

The World Book notes that Shakespeare likewise alluded to this belief in A Midsummer Night's Dream when a character in the play discovers two lovers in the woods and asks:

St. Valentine is past;
Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?"

So, which of these three main possible origins is responsible for the customs we observe today?

Here's the diplomatic conclusion of the World Book: "Valentine's Day probably came from a combination of all three of those sources – plus the belief that spring is a time for lovers."


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